Raptors show trademarked fighting spirit to stay alive in series vs. 76ers

The win that matters most to the Toronto Raptors came before the ball ever went up, when Scottie Barnes walked to center court at Scotiabank Arena, was presented with the NBA’s rookie-of-the-year award from Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and held the trophy aloft for the crowd.

“Scottie, Scottie, Scottie,” came the chant.

It won’t be the last time in his career Barnes here’s his name rain down from the rafters at Scotiabank Arena. And it’s easy to imagine so much more, like “MVP, MVP, MVP.”

All in time.

But for now Barnes and the Raptors get to keep fighting what has always been an impossible fight, but, hey, there has to be a first time as the Raptors are hoping to become the only team in NBA history to come back from down 3-0 in 144 tries.

Barnes played but was limited by his gimpy ankle while Fred VanVleet’s availability in the series is in doubt after he left the game early in the second quarter with a hip strain.

The Raptors weathered it all in a hard-fought 110-102 win that extended their first-round, best-of-seven series with the fourth-seeded Sixers to a fifth game on Monday night back in Philadelphia.

The hope is that Barnes’ ankle will be that much better by then, although the status of VanVleet has to be a concern.

In the meantime, the Raptors just fought – almost literally at times as both Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby got into skirmishes with Sixers star Joel Embiid who was clearly agitated at what he believed to be an overly physical approach by the Raptors and not enough support from the referees.

The Raptors certainly saw it otherwise and will try to replicate their harassing, annoying style that their line-ups of long, aggressive wing defenders is so suited for.

Toronto was led by Siakam who shook off questions about a sub-par outing in Game 3 with grinding, determined 34-point showing in Game 4. He got to the free-throw line 15 times after failing to earn a single free throw attempt in Game 3. His three-point play early in the fourth quarter followed by a steal and lay-up by Precious Achiuwa gave Toronto a seven-point lead with 9:11 to play. From there Siakam worked his way to the line seven times. He also assisted on a key triple by Anunoby that put Toronto up 12 with 3:44 to play that gave the Raptors some breathing room in a game that offered little chance to relax.

The Raptors won despite shooting just 42 per cent from the floor and 8-of-34 from three because they grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to six by the Sixers and had just 11 turnovers to 15 by Philadelphia. The Sixers were led by Embiid who had just 21 points – nine below his season average – while Trent Jr. had 24 for Toronto.

It was fitting in a way that with their season on the line the Raptors doubled down on the positionless approach they have been experimenting with all season. With VanVleet having to sit out the second half and Barnes limited with his ankle, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse rode a lineup of five 6-foot-9 (ish) wings in Siakam, Achiuwa, Thad Young, Anunoby and Chris Boucher. The only adjustment down the stretch was when Nurse exchanged Trent Jr. for Boucher.

But regardless of the series result, the progress of Barnes has been the on-going success story for Toronto who were able to draft him after their so-called Tampa Tank – their response to the pandemic addled 2020-21 season.

The 20-year-old from West Palm Beach, Fla., became just the third Raptor to ever win the rookie-of-the-year award and he did it in noteworthy fashion, winning the closest vote in 20 years over Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley by just 15 points. Barnes had 48 first-place votes to 43 for Mobley out of the 100 ballots cast. Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham was third. Barnes was taken fourth overall while Mobley and Cunningham went third and first, respectively, as part of the one of the deepest rookie classes on years.

Barnes earned to award thank to his combination of versatility and durability. He averaged 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.08 steals and 0.74 blocks in 35.4 minutes in 74 games, leading all rookies in minutes, ranking third in points and rebounds and finishing fifth in assists, steals and blocks.

“We are incredibly proud of Scottie and are thrilled and grateful that his hard work has been recognized with this honour,” Toronto Raptors vice chairman and president Masai Ujiri said in a statement. “What you see on the court is exactly who Scottie is: enthusiastic. Joyful. Athletic. Skilled, and a winner. We – and our fans – loved seeing his development through this season, and we can’t wait to see what the future brings.”

We already know he’s got heart as he refused to face the prospect of finishing his decorated rookie season on the bench, watching. He wasn’t at his bouncy, athletic best on Saturday afternoon, but he found a way to contribute and that he wanted to so badly is perhaps the most important takeaway of all.

Barnes availability has been an ongoing question since he had to leave Game 1 after 32 minutes when Embiid stepped on the inside of the rookie’s left ankle, inverting it badly. There was some early gamesmanship with the Raptors kept listing Barnes as possibly being available even when he was wearing a walking boot the morning of Game 2, for example. Even on Friday, Nurse said Barnes’ return for Game 4 a week after his injury, was unlikely.

But Barnes looked good in his pre-game warm-up, and he was cleared to play without restriction. He came off the bench for the first time this season as Nurse opted to start with Khem Birch against Embiid, but Barnes took the floor to an ovation midway through the first period and looked like he’d never been hurt. He picked up Harden full-court, he switched seamlessly onto Embiid and offensively instantly became the extra set of hands the Raptors have been missing – someone to take some weight off VanVleet and Siakam. There was an early scare when Barnes jammed his ankle on the foot of Sixers forward Paul Reed and fell to the floor in pain, but after testing it during a timeout, Barnes continued.

Coincidence or not Siakam had his best quarter of the series as he went off for 10 points on five shots in the early going as the Raptors played Philadelphia even, 24-24, through the first 12 minutes. Siakam and Barnes weren’t the only ones to provide an early boost. Veteran Thad Young has been playing through a sprained thumb on his shooting hand but was feeling good enough to score four quick points in a late first-quarter stint, including dropping Embiid with a rude crossover dribble on his way to eight first-half points. It was a tough first half for Embiid, who was playing with a sprained right thumb who missed his first five shots and didn’t start showing signs of life until putting together a pair of makes late in the second quarter. In the meantime, the Raptors had opened a 12-point lead with just over four minutes left in the first half after Trent Jr. hit his second three of the quarter before the Sixers clawed it back somewhat as the Raptors led 54-49 to start the third quarter.

But the Raptors’ biggest short-term concern was the health of VanVleet, who played just three minutes in the second quarter, when he tore his jersey at the chest in frustration after seemingly tweaking his left hip on an innocuous seeming move. He was examined at halftime and didn’t return for the third quarter, with Barnes joining the starting lineup along with Achiuwa.

It made a tough task that much harder, even if VanVleet had made just four threes in his previous 23 attempts and struggled broadly offensively his presence creates badly needed floor spacing for the Raptors and he’s key to their ability to create turnovers defensively with ability to generate steals and deflections at league-best rates.

The Raptors soldiered on. Threes from Young and from Boucher helped the Raptors’ offence keep things moving even without VanVleet and with Barnes limited mostly to moving the ball and screening. Embiid came alive, doubling his point totals from the first half with eight points in the third, but somehow Toronto was able to take an 80-77 lead into the fourth quarter.

Their prized rookie was on their bench and their point guard was in the training room but somehow the Raptors extended the series and gave themselves at least of chance of doing something special.

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